By Shannon Drayer
HOUSTON – Some bleary-eyed Mariners will take the field tonight in Houston as the team did not arrive at the team hotel until just before 4 a.m. Friday morning from New York. With the Mariners' early-season travel nightmare, I think most of us had overlooked that they were scheduled to play a night game in New York despite having to fly 3 hours and 45 minutes to get to Houston for a game the next day. The closer you look at this schedule the worse it gets.
In reality the guys are probably not feeling it much. Winning five out of the last six games helps, and I think they are happy to have a game today to see if they can continue riding the momentum they managed to generate after losing eight straight.
I have talked about this on the pre- and post-game shows and run a couple of interviews about it, but in case you missed it, the turnaround coincides with a players-only meeting called by some of the veterans on the team. I try not to put too much stock into these meetings, but this one targeted something specific the veterans had observed – they believed that the younger players were making too much of the losses.
As one veteran said and then Michael Saunders repeated in his on-field interview following the Mariners win over the Yankees Thursday night, it was important that they realize that championships aren't won in April.
"We needed them to just pump the brakes a little," catcher John Buck told me. "They needed to know it was okay, this is baseball, this happens."
"Don't be tight, play free and easy," was the message reliever Danny Farquhar said the team received from the veterans. "You know Buck, and Robbie (Robinson Cano), and Felix (Hernandez) and (Fernando) Rodney, they all spoke and said, 'Hey guys, it's just baseball, it's early. It's April, we've got 140 games left.' We're playing well. Just be free and easy, and we have been playing free and easy ever since."
"They can kind of share their experiences and say, 'Hey guys, it's April. It's fifteen games into the season,' or whatever," echoed shortstop Brad Miller. "Obviously we weren't playing how we wanted to so they just kind of wanted to calm everybody's nerves and say, 'Hey, we've got a lot of good baseball ahead of us.' It's good when you have a lot of good veterans and they can ease everybody and let them know its going to be okay because they have been through it."
The winning helps take the weight off of individual's shoulders. A great example came last night when catcher Mike Zunino excitedly talked about the win and his pitcher's performance. The only clue of his own hit-less, three-strikeout night at the plate was his bat sticking out of a nearby trash can.
"I must have picked the wrong bat for the next day," he laughed before the game in Houston. "No, when you can leave the field every day with a W there's no reason to be mad. It's a game where you are playing 162. There is no reason to get mad every day."
Are they back on track? Five out of six is a good start.
Abraham Almonte is back in the lineup but now hitting ninth. "I'm hoping that will relax him a bit and hopeful he will get going," manager Lloyd McClendon said of the move.
As for keeping Saunders at leadoff, how permanent will this be? "I'm not sure," said McClendon. "Right now Almonte is struggling a little bit. Somebody has got to hit there so he's the next guy."
• McClendon acknowledged that Hisashi Iwakuma will be on a bit of a pitch count Saturday against the Astros. He will be allowed to throw around 100 pitches.
• We spoke with Iwakuma earlier today and he still seems concerned about his command, although he says that it is not unexpected that it is not 100 percent seeing that he has made just one rehab start. He feels confident that his strength is where it needs to be, however.
• You may have noticed that Joe Beimel was up early in the game Thursday. With Roenis Elias at 67 pitches, Beimel was announced to be warming up. Turns out he wasn't. According to bullpen coach Mike Rojas, Beimel has a routine that involves going over to the bullpen mound at some point and getting it ready for if he does need to warm up. Rojas said that Beimel was up in the ninth while Rodney was pitching because he needed to get some work. He said that we could see that with a few other relievers as they have been the opposite of taxed in the recent week with an extra member in the pen, off-days and the rainout.
• If all goes well in the next couple of days, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker could begin throwing bullpens sometime next week. Walker is a bit ahead of Paxton at this point. Blake Beavan is not yet throwing and outfielder Logan Morrison is not close to a return either as he has yet to run the bases.
• A roster move will need to be made tomorrow before Iwakuma is activated. It most likely will be a reliever who is sent down.